Friday, September 4, 2009

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Jessica Oreck

Jessica Oreck works days in the American Museum of Natural History's live exhibitions department, preparing gourmet meals for visiting sugar gliders and poison dart frogs. There she witnesses firsthand the changing ways of how we interact with science. Hand-painted dioramas gather dust while touch screens proliferate; students study aspects of biology so minute that it's nearly impossible to relate them to whole organisms, and it becomes harder and harder to grow up feeling a real connection to the natural world.

Finding that connection is made a bit easier by watching Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, Oreck's first feature, which premiered this year at SXSW. Its subject is the historical and current fascination for insects in Japanese culture, and it takes a "three-dimensional" approach to the topic, mixing together beautiful images of the insects themselves, individual stories of workers in various sectors of the insect business, interviews with historians, b-roll of swarming crowds, all draped in a Japanese voice-over that delves into science, poetry, folktales and pop culture. "My main goal with anything I work on is to create a sense of wonder," says Oreck, and she succeeds.

Oreck's path has been straight and clear ever since she saw David Attenborough's The Private Life of Plants in a ninth-grade science class. The documentarian Jean Painlev was also an influence, and until the recent Criterion release of his 1930s underwater photography, Oreck had to import foreign-region DVDs from France. But Oreck has never wanted to make traditional nature documentaries, which tend to take an omniscient view of an environment, leaving out all traces of human life. "People usually do nature films by geographical section, or by type of animal," she says, "but what really interested me was why — why these people were so interested in a part of the natural world that the rest of the globe ignored or thought was disgusting."

She is planning her next feature, about the role of mushrooms in Eastern European life and mythology, but can't shoot it until the mushrooms come in the fall. But that's just one of a dozen projects. Others include museum exhibitions of strange and esoteric living worlds, science-based interstitial Web content, and episodic survival guides she films on custom-built miniature sets that take place in a postapocalyptic landscape of her creation. She says, "Almost all of them are about ethnobiology: how humans relate to plants and other animals. I think people sometimes forget that humans are animals." – Alicia Van Couvering


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